I’m late with this review. Been focusing on migrating the blog across to its own domain. The use-by date of my useful recall of movies is pretty short, and I fear the deadline may have passed with this one. So, will have to go for broad brush strokes, not detail.
That said, Toomelah is a haunting film that stays with you long after viewing, not least because of the astounding performance of its 10-year-old lead, Daniel Conners.
Daniel tells his story through the language of his eyes, facial expressions and body. As with all the characters in the movie, his spoken dialogue is spare and sparse. Kids are almost always intuitively great as actors, but this is really something else. It’s as if there is no art to this performance, nothing held back, no barrier between character and performer. This little bloke apparently knows no other way than to give himself to his role, completely and utterly. Great poignancy lies within that realisation, and in writer/director Ivan Sen’s masterful melding of real life and art.
Toomelah is a remote aboriginal community in northwest NSW that started as a misson back in the 1930s. Sen shot the movie onsite, and with the exception of actor Dean Daley-Jones his cast comprised only the people of the community. These are decisions that have paid off.
Sure, some of the performances of the minor characters are a bit rough around the edges at times, but it doesn’t much matter. Far more important is the sense of authenticity the locals and their habitat give to the piece. As a slice-of-life depiction of a part of Australia removed geographically and culturally from the greater community, the film works superbly.
And in this sense, I think it’s important. What do most of us really know about the everyday lives of people in communities such as Toomelah? We have an impression from media coverage, almost entirely negative, and dangerously (and tragically) assume that’s all there is folks. It ain’t! In enabling intimate access to this remote world of spiritual and material impoverishment, Toomelah humanises ‘the other’, filling a gap no doco can.
As with the landmark indigenous movie Samson and Delilah, the pace is slow. This is as it should be. Nothing much ‘happens’ in Toomelah. Most of the townfolk are unemployed, living in squalid conditions, getting by as best they can. There’s dope, alcohol and tobacco, lots of sitting around and not a lot of hope. A challenge to build a feature movie out of this material, you’d think, but Sen is more than up to the task, somehow managing to bring a hypnotic quality to the languidly unfolding nightmare of ennui that is the lot of the residents of Toomelah.
Daniel wags school and hangs out with a group of small-time drug dealers headed by gangster wannabe Linden (Christopher Edwards). His ambition is to be just like them, and when he’s assigned the job of drug courier, he appears to be well on his way. The loose narrative builds gradually to a low-key climax that leaves Daniel at a crossroads.
There is a chilling scene in a car parked down a dirt track in the bush, in which Daniel’s life is mapped out for him by ex-con Bruce (Dean Daley-Jones), head drug dealer in town and Linden’s rival. There are subtle undertones of personal threat to Daniel in this claustrophobic scene – the vague, sinister shapes lurking beneath the surface of the dialogue are terrifying, and registered in the child’s face in a way that is just spellbinding.
At the heart of this film’s power is Ivan Sen’s uncompromising approach to depicting Toomelah and its people authentically. There is no judgement here, no overt manipulative didactic strategy on the part of the director. There doesn’t need to be. The truth is all that is required.
Walk away from this without a moment’s thought on the plight of the remote indigenous communities of the Lucky Country and you are part of the problem.
For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives